If you’re neither Lewis Hamilton nor Nico Rosberg, and if you’d like a career in motorsports, the job of race car engineer might be worth considering. You can often hear the voices of race car engineers during the pit to car-radio transmissions of Formula 1 broadcasts, when they are answering their driver’s questions and passing on vital car performance information to them. It’s a hugely attractive career and exceptionally well paid. But how do you break into the impossibly glamorous, electrifying world of race engineers?
Read on for a short summary about this action-packed career.
What do race engineers do?
In very simple language, the overall objective of a race car engineer is to achieve the best possible performance from the car and driver. In effect, a race car engineer is the car driver’s ‘right-hand man’.
Here are some typical tasks:
- Analysing data available to make informed decisions about the set-up required to generate optimum car and driver performance
- Conducting pre-briefings and post-race debriefs with the driver in order to obtain vital performance information that can then be relayed to design and vehicle dynamics professionals
- Working with/managing a team of mechanics to ensure the car is fit for purpose and ‘optimised’ to keep it at the front of the grid
- Ensuring technical problems are eliminated as much as is possible
- Conducting lap simulations to obtain information to help maximise car performance
These salaries(rounded) are typical but can vary significantly. There are no set pay rates, so the information below should be used as a guide and not relied upon.
New graduates (1-2 years’ experience)
With 3 years’ experience
Senior race engineers (5-7 years’ experience)
Skills and attributes required
- Resilience – the ability to cope with pressure and intensity
- Quick thinking – you’ll frequently need to make snap decisions which are both informed and accurate
- Passion for racing – very long hours mean you’ll be living and breathing the job, so your commitment must be total
- Excellent communication skills
- The ability to work well in a team
- Excellent problem solving skills
Qualifications and entry requirements
You’ll need a degree or equivalent in mechanical or automotive engineering. Most UK universities offer mechanical engineering courses – have a look at UCAS to find the right course for your needs. You will also need take maths and physics A-levels and another compatible subject such as engineering or chemistry or further mathematics. Your university degree should enable you to study vehicle dynamics or mathematical modelling such as MATLAB (matrix laboratory) or SimPack.
Mechanical engineering courses last:
- 3 years, resulting in a BEng, or
- 4 years, resulting in an MEng
Universities such as Brunel, Imperial, Bath and Warwick produce many graduates that work in F1.
To enhance employment prospects after graduation, aspiring race engineers try to secure a motorsport-related work placement as part of their degree. Others volunteer to work for race teams for free in their spare time. Marshalling is a good option, as it gives paddock access, making it possible to experience F1 life close-up. Another popular option is to contact teams directly and offer to do a project for them, for example mathematical modelling work that they would value.
It isn’t possible to walk into a race engineer job straight after graduating from university. Most race engineers will have worked their way up to the position, and usually after having worked as a vehicle dynamicist and a data engineer, whether in F1, rallying, Indycar racing , NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) or similar. Alternatively, you could work in lower formulas/junior race teams as a data analyst and develop, ‘on the ground’, the skills required to graduate to race engineer.
Beyond the exalted stratum of senior race engineer, possibilities for career development include senior managerial roles such as department head or chief aerodynamicist. The summit of F1 engineering, however, is the role of technical director. Technical directors have overall responsibility for track performance, aerodynamics and car design. At this level, salaries are upwards of £450,000 per year.
If you have the passion for racing, the academic qualifications and the attributes required of a race engineer, then a race car engineer role is surely the ultimate; the dream job. These highly-regarded professionals are often looked upon as the ‘public face’ of the team. It’s a privileged position and one worth pursuing if you fit the bill.